Jack froze dead in the swamp and brought his rifle up to his cheek. He scanned the opaque brown water and waited in a cold sweat for any sign of movement. Butcher waded up slowly on his right flank, shotgun poised.
“What did you see?” Butcher asked.
“Not sure. Something in the water I think,” Jack replied in a hushed voice. The squad spread out slowly, everybody nervous and on edge. That was what being on Hera did to a man. No matter how hard they were when they landed, everybody was nervous on Hera.
“Scoop! Bring up the flamethrower,” Jack commanded in a hoarse whisper. Scoop stepped forward, gripping the weapon so tight his knuckles were white. Jack signaled with his hands where he wanted Scoop to aim. The mountain of flesh followed his order and lit the pilot light.
Jack fired a quick burst into the muck. The water kicked up and sent ripples across through the swamp. For half of a breath, the planet was quiet. Then a giant centipede-like creature reared its head out of the water. Its pincers clicked and it let out a disgusting and skin-crawling noise. Scoop reacted first when he let loose a long jet of flame.
The fire hit the alien in the face and ignited the water around it. Then Butcher thumped away, putting two slugs into its body. The alien charged forward, determined to take down the intruders. Jack and the squad stepped backwards slowly, firing all the time. A whole squad’s worth of fire pouring into this monster and it just kept coming, burning and bleeding all the while.
It was about to bite Jack clean in half when Butcher put a 10 gauge slug into the side of its head. It jerked and fell just to the side of Jack, splashing them all in the swamp water. Jack felt the hundreds of wiry legs brush past him. He shivered and twitched involuntarily.
Beak walked up to the dead monster. He walked up too fast. Jack screamed for him not to. In a last gasp, the centipede roared and impaled Beak on one of its pincers. Jack jammed his rifle into the alien’s eye and emptied the fifty round magazine. Blood and more swamp water blew into his face. It twitched a little bit but it was finally dead. Everybody stared at the felled creature. Jack was the first to move. He picked up Beak’s rifle and distributed the spare ammunition. “Let’s keep moving,”
They kept trekking through the sweaty and claustrophobic hell. Val was next to Jack at the front of the squad.
“How did you know it wasn’t dead?” Val asked.
“You’ve been on-planet for what: five weeks?” Jack said, without breaking focus.
“ 36 days,”
“String enough days together and you’ll learn when something’s dead or not,” Val had been a contraband smuggler back on Earth so he wasn’t completely clueless. But there was a big difference between slipping past customs or trading panic shots with other criminals and surviving out in the wild.
“How many days do you have?” Val asked again.
“247 on Hera. 973 on Webley,” Jack replied.
“Holy shit. What did you do?” Val asked in awe but also took a step away. It was a common question in the penal gangs. Everybody wanted to size each other up, see who was top dog. It was a question of hierarchy before the first patrol. But if you could survive that patrol, then what you did was merely a question to make conversation.
“Something unforgivable,” Jack answered after a moment.
“Clearly,” Val said sarcastically.
“Just keep sharp. We’ve got another four miles to go before it gets dark,” Jack ended the conversation and brought everybody’s focus back to the swamp.
Unlike everybody else in the gang, Jack wasn’t counting down days. The convicts all got sentences based on their crimes. Thieves and smugglers got 365 days. Rapists like Beak got 1,200 days and murders got 1,500 days. Survive long enough and you were released. Everybody knew their number and was counting down to get out. But Jack was counting up. He was the only volunteer for penal work in the entire history of the system. He technically could leave anytime he wanted.
“502 days and a wake up,” Butcher said as the floodlights of the camp appeared through the building-sized trees. They picked their way through carefully, warm and putrid water up to their balls. Even in the fading light, the humidity was thick enough to chew.
Step by step, their campsite grew closer. They’d be fools to think it was safe but it was at least safer than being in the water. The evening brought on an auditory onslaught as tens of thousands of aliens, bugs and other predators began making noises. It made every man’s neck hair stand on edge.
Jack thought back to almost dying earlier when the centipede attacked. He felt a strange pang of regret that Butcher had shot the alien just in time. On the other hand, he knew he was nowhere near through his own sentence. Earth may not have sentenced him but Jack had sentenced himself and he owed a great many more days.